Trying to pin down Poisonous Birds to one particular sound is extraordinarily difficult but it seems like that is exactly what vocalist and producer Tom Ridley is aiming for. Born from experimentation and very proudly a product of their local scene in Bristol, the trio blend electronica, techno, lo-fi trip-hop, along with ‘live’ guitar and drums to create a sound that is darkly cinematic and always absorbing.
At its core though, the band started as a reaction against Ridley’s previous experiences in bands; a creative outlet for two friends making and releasing music rather than an attempt to make it big. “I guess initially Poisonous Birds was supposed to be everything that my previous band wasn’t. It wasn’t supposed to be complicated and it was heavily electronic. It was just me and Finn and we trust each other completely so there was no politics. I wanted it to be small and obviously not a big band, I didn’t like when bands would get their first gigs and print 100 t-shirts and all those other tropes.” It seems as though Ridley is intent on doing things his own way. Despite seeming to have bundles of creative energy, mentioning numerous collaborations and even scoring a short film (Elver) for BBC Arts, he admits to struggling with the “promo machine which favours those who are omnipresent.” In fact up until very recently he was adamant about not having a Facebook page. While this eventually became more hassle than it was worth and he ended up having to bite the bullet, it certainly sounds like a huge amount of time is dedicated to creating and experimenting with music instead of worrying about building a following.
Aside from those principles though, Poisonous Birds began in 2017 without much of a direction or even a core ‘sound’ until Ridley bought his first synthesiser as a way to experiment, replacing the bass in a track he had written with it and playing around until he found something that stuck. “I didn’t start writing music with the idea of this band in particular but I landed on something I thought was interesting. There’s the obvious stuff like NIN and some others but at that time there wasn’t a heap of bands who had done that. I explored that a bit and ended up arriving at a sound which was the catalyst for everything else. Musically the idea was to be more gestural with big, bold moves not fiddly complicated things which I’ve tried to stick to since.” This is something which can definitely be heard in the trio’s latest EP, We Can Never Not Be All Of Us, which Ridley describes as “an exploration of things that we’ve all been feeling certainly this year and maybe last year as well.”
Even amongst all the different tracks and sounds going on, there is still a very minimalistic feel to the record and a focus on atmosphere above everything else, which makes sense, since that is exactly where most of Poisonous Birds’ music starts. “I think it’s always been electronics and atmosphere first then guitars and drums are kinda’ used to accent and punctuate as needed. It’ll start with a ‘thing’ that has a kind of atmosphere or something that feels interesting. Usually a sound, whether that’s from a synth or my sampler, sometimes it’s a percussive thing that Finn (Drums) has sent me.” On the first track of the new EP, ‘We Move, Plastic’ you can pretty much hear this process in action. Starting with a very simple percussive beat, the song builds and builds, incorporating more complex rhythmic elements and a wider arrangement of sounds but it never leaves that original beat behind, staying anchored to it despite lots of different ideas playing on around.
Of course, no band ever truly exists in isolation, and although finding a perfect comparison for Poisonous Birds’ sound is difficult, elements from a huge number of other acts can be found. When talking about reference points for certain sounds and feelings within the band, Ridley excitedly talks about being a product of the Bristolian scene, citing Scalping, Giant Swan and a collective known as Avon Terrorcore as artists which are all experimenting with blurring the lines between very different types of music. When these connections are combined with the number of collaborations and projects it seems like Ridley has been working on, it is no surprise that such a varied palette of sounds can be found on this EP. When speaking specifically about the more ravey moments on the album he talks about how certain sounds have a very definitive reference point and how you can almost “quote a different style of music or a different time.” Ridley comes across as someone who can manage to find a way to be creative and take inspiration from almost anything. Whether it’s soundtacking a film or trying to rework an instantly recognisable sound into something new, it seems like anything could be the spark for a new track.
However there are also some influences which might be a little more surprising. “On the other end of the spectrum there is 22 in a Million by Bon Iver and the way that he as a folk artist who has just torn it to bits and when I heard it thought it was amazing.” This idea of deconstructing and playing with almost enshrined sounds and tropes is something which can be seen in the only instrumental track on the EP, ‘I was sat by the window and there was a bright light and I was very sad’. Ridley admits that the song was mostly written as a joke as he hates drum and bass and so obviously decided to write a track that didn’t conform to the standard expectations of the genre. “None of those sounds belong in drum and bass, but as soon as you add in that ‘dudukat’, it suddenly is! The synths I borrowed from another track and we ended up in a place where I thought it was quite fun and was a joke to ourselves so we decided to stick it on the record. It’s like nothing else we’ve ever done and we’ll probably never do anything like it again.” Although it may have started life as a joke, the track really does demonstrate the freeing and experimental approach the group have towards their music and shows bravery; taking something they usually don’t relate to and managing to find a way of mashing in into their own mould.
The band also take a very different approach to their live shows in comparison to other acts, both in the rock and electronic world. From the way they approach each individual gig right through to how they tackle the problem of creating an engaging and memorable performance. After getting some feedback after some early shows, Ridley decided to ditch the laptops as a way of proving to anyone watching that they weren’t just seeing a group play over the top of a backing track, everything was happening live on stage. “The live show is an awful lot of work that happens which no one sees. I have an organelle – basically a little computer which I can programme with some crazy fucking shit, lights, clicks, sequencing, synth, syncing pedals. I don’t know if anyone has done quite what we have. Normally a band doing a big show with lights and projections usually have a crew with a laptop backstage maybe. But because we don’t, we literally set up the show and it’s just the three of us, there’s a lot more that’s gone into making that show slick with no crew.”
Far more than just having an impressive light show though, Poisonous Birds are also looking at ways to tailor their show for different environments, whether that’s opening for fellow Bristolians Phoxjaw early next year, or in a club setting. “I’m quite up for the live show being quite different to the records and to depend on the tour. We’ve predominantly ended up on rock shows which is cool and we’ll obviously have the live drum kit and do a big rock gig with Jacks’ guitar louder in the mix. but there’s a lot more that’s coming up which I want to have more of a club feel. We’ll still play the songs but they’ll have a more electronic feel more focused on creating an atmosphere in a room for people to enjoy with their friends.” However it sounds as though Ridley wants to take this even further and give the band the opportunity to create a unique experience for every show. “Hopefully the stuff I’m doing now will help us to improvise a lot more and kind of string out the end of a song or play with it to our heart’s content. Now that I’m playing a synthesiser live some of the core sounds are taken out of the recording sessions but you can mangle them out of place so you can end it in quite a different place to the original record which is really exciting.” He also mentions big projections and different controls which allow band members to control other lighting elements themselves and being able to create a “grand spectacle.” Once more we can see how much fine-tuning the mood comes into what Poisonous Birds are all about, and the ambition of the band to create that big experience in small rooms has the potential to be something truly special.
Now with three EPs and a number of collaborations under their belt since 2017, Poisonous Birds are showing themselves to be a fairly prolific creative force and a full-length debut album seems like the logical next step. However this could depend on a few different things as although Ridley hopes it is the next big thing the band releases, he wants to make sure that the time is right. More importantly though he would like to ensure that the big statement of ‘debut album’ doesn’t fall on deaf ears as the group are still unsigned at this moment. As a band that was born with the intention of rejecting the standard music industry template, it would come as no surprise to anyone if Poisonous Birds instead turned around and did something completely different. Wherever their own path might take them, we’ll certainly be watching.